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What Happens When a Self-Driving Car Causes an Accident?

In April 2015, the New York Daily News reported that a fully autonomous self-driving car had successfully completed a cross-country trip. The 3,400-mile journey took the car from San Francisco to Manhattan. It was an impressive display of cutting-edge technology.

Self-driving vehicle technology has the potential to provide many benefits for drivers in the near future. In fact, we are already seeing vehicles on the market that include some self-driving features. However, unfortunately sometimes things can go wrong.

Recently, the New York Times reported on a federal safety investigation that is looking into the nation’s first fatal self-driving automobile accident. The case raises serious questions about self-driving vehicle safety and the legal implications of these vehicles.

The First Self-Driving Car Accident Fatality

As was reported by the New York Times, the fatal Tesla accident occurred on May 7, 2016 in northern Florida. Soon after the accident, investigators determined that the Tesla’s “autopilot mode,” a self-driving feature, was heavily implicated in the wreck.

Tesla’s autopilot mode is only semi-autonomous technology. While it does not operate a vehicle by itself for an entire trip, it is still highly advanced and allows drivers to take their hands off of the wheel.

In autopilot mode, software in the Tesla activates sensors that keep the vehicle aware of its surroundings. After assessing the environment, the software will also keep the vehicle in the correct lane on the highway and it will control the speed of the car to ensure that the vehicle conforms to the flow of traffic.

This technology is far from perfect. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) investigators believe that its failure was to blame for the deadly Tesla crash in Florida. Thus far, the following facts on that case have been reported:

  • The Tesla was following an 18-wheeler on a Florida highway.
  • The driver had his hands off the steering wheel and was relying on autopilot mode.
  • At the time of the accident, there was heavy glare from the sun.
  • The vehicle’s autopilot sensor failed to distinguish the glare from the white trailer of the truck.
  • Because of the misidentification, the software failed to slow down the vehicle.
  • The Tesla slammed into the truck at a high rate of speed, killing the driver.

Tesla contends that they are not liable for this specific accident. They point to the fact that autopilot mode is only a semi-autonomous feature. Therefore, in the eyes of the company, the driver of the vehicle still has ultimate responsibility for any accident. However, the New York Times piece quotes several safety experts who have rejected that argument. Indeed, companies have a duty to ensure that their products are safe for consumers.

Liability Will Begin to Shift from Drivers to Manufacturers

When it comes to New York car accidents, the overriding legal principle is that the party who is responsible for the accident will ultimately be liable for any resulting damages. Currently, the vast majority of car accidents are caused by drivers. According to data provided by the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles, human error is the cause of nearly 90 percent of all car accident injuries.

Human error is the cause of nearly 90 percent of all car accident injuries

Human-caused accidents include everything from drunk driving accidents to distracted driving accidents. New York data for 2014 shows that driver error was 18 times more likely to be at fault for an accident injury than was a vehicle manufacturing issue. However, the era of self-driving vehicle technology is likely to dramatically change that ratio. Vehicles will be doing much more, and drivers will be doing much less. All companies involved in the production of a self-driving vehicle could potentially be held liable for any resulting accidents.

Self-Driving Car Accidents: Product Liability

By definition, the users of self-driving cars are forced to put considerable faith into the hands of a vehicle’s developers and parts manufacturers. If a serious injury results because the self-driving automobile proved to be unsafe, the responsible company could be held liable for the full extent of the damages. Holding a company liable for an unsafe product is done through bringing a products liability claim.

There are three different types of product liability actions:

type of product liability action - defective designDefective design – A self-driving vehicle relies on many different important design elements. This includes everything from the vehicle’s chassis to its software. If any accident occurs because of an inherent defect within any of these elements, the responsible company could be held liable. A defective design claim is generally brought when the plaintiff believes that an entire product line is too unsafe to be on the market.

Manufacturing defect – A manufacturing defect is an issue with a specific element of the vehicle. In this type of case, the product design itself is acceptable, but an individual unit is defective. Somewhere in the manufacturing process, the firm deviated from the original approved product design, leading to an unsafe vehicle. This could put you and your family at serious risk.

Failure to warn – Finally, all companies have a legal duty to inform their customers of the safety risks associated with their products. This duty includes an obligation to properly market all products. Consumers must not be misled about product safety issues. The Tesla autopilot accident case from Florida may provide an instructive example of this type of claim. While Tesla argues that they have no liability because their product was misused by the driver, a court may disagree. If a court finds that Tesla’s actions led to customers having false expectations about the reliability of autopilot mode, then the company could be held liable for the accident.

Contact Our NYC Office Today

At the office of David Resnick & Associates, P.C., our compassionate car accident attorneys have helped many victims recover the fair compensation they deserve. If you or a loved one has suffered an injury in a New York City car accident, our team is ready to help. Please do not hesitate to contact our office today to schedule a free review of your case.

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